I, Phone errr I,Pencil – What Is Disruptive Technology Anyway?

Last weekend in the Indianapolis Star Jonah Goldberg introduced his readers to one of the most famous essays ever penned on the power of free markets and more explicitly the power of the human spirit to work together toward an unknown common goal titled I, Pencil by Leonard Read. 

It begins …

“I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.*
Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do."

 It goes on to state…

“Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year. “

Every day I work with engineers who are designing the most advanced communications systems in the world yet none of them could build a simple phone from scratch.  Nor could they build the routers, switches, gateways that move my voice magically from one side of the earth to the other in milliseconds.  Only thru the collective unknowing effort of engineers around the globe have we moved from the ATT Model 500 phone of our parents to the i-Phone 4 of our kids. 

So that brings me to an interesting question on what exactly is a disruptive technology?  Is it a sweet new user interface with its smooth glass surface like every Apple fan wants us to believe or is it the millions of individual discoveries needed to be able to collectively develop these devices?

True disruptive technology is not the coolest new gadget or toy.  It’s not the sweet new delivery system for sending video to my kids while I’m on the road.  It’s not Twitter or Facebook or MySpace.  It IS however a tribute to all the engineers, developers and tinkerers who unknowingly or sometimes knowingly made it all possible. 

Here’s to the geek in all of us.  Cheers.

Tom